The dark origins of the Grimms' fairy tales
Every fairy tale ends with a happily ever after, right? Well, not to begin with, they didn’t…
If you had to recount the story of Cinderella right now, you could probably do it quite easily. Wicked stepmother, glass slipper, stroke of midnight, blah blah blah. You could probably also reel off the story of Snow White, or Little Red Riding Hood, without needing to really think about it too much. These stories are pretty well woven into our cultural DNA by now – and a lot of that is down to the work of the Grimm brothers. But the versions we know now aren’t the versions the Grimms originally published, and the stories weren’t originally intended for kids at all.
Back in the early 1800s, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were working as librarians. Born into a well-off family, their lives took a turn for the worse when their father died, and the brothers struggled through school and university in poverty. Librarians weren’t particularly well paid, either, but the Grimms were both keen scholars, and their work gave them both time and opportunity for their own research. And their research led them to put together a collection of folk tales.
It sounds like a kind of whimsical project, but actually the Grimms’ work was part of a wider political movement in Germany at the time. The country was split into 200 principalities, and many people – including the Grimms’ law professor, Friedrich von Savigny – wanted to see them united as a single nation. To that end, many writers and thinkers were turning to traditional folk tales to explore (or maybe define) a kind of German national identity. The theory was that these stories, passed down from one generation to the next, contained the collective hopes, fears, and morals of the German people. The Grimms weren’t the only ones putting together collections of folklore, but it’s their work that became the best known.
Their first volume of stories, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (or Children's and Household Tales) contained 86 stories, gathered together from the Grimms’ research, and from their friends and acquaintances. The Grimms included stories commonly told in other regions of the world if they thought they had German roots somewhere along the line (including rewritten versions of stories thought to be original to French author Charles Perrault) and all the stories were edited, both so that they used Germanic words and phrases, and so that they sounded authentically rustic. It’s hard to know, now, how cynically that might’ve been done, so maybe it’s best to give the Grimms the benefit of the doubt and assume they thought they were doing what they thought was best.
One thing they definitely were doing, though, was making sure to include all the gory details of the more didactic stories in their collection. You’ve probably heard that most fairy tales were much nastier in their original forms than they are in the later Disneyfied versions, but it’s still striking just how much darker they were. If you don’t feel like having your childhood illusions shattered, click away now, because I’m about to share some of the grisly details from the original versions of some much-loved fairy tales:
According to Disney: Upset by her step-daughter’s beauty, a wicked stepmother orders a huntsman to take her young daughter out into the woods and kill her, bringing back her heart. The huntsman can’t do it, and lets Snow White escape into the forest. She finds a tiny house where singing dwarves, all named for their defining characteristics, live. They decide to let her stay, to keep house for them.
The wicked queen finds out, via her magic mirror, that Snow White isn’t dead, and sets out to kill her with a poisoned apple. Though the dwaves get revenge by driving the queen off the edge of a cliff, they can’t wake Snow White… until a passing prince comes and awakens her with true love’s kiss. And then they live happily ever after.
But originally: In the first edition of the story, it wasn’t a wicked step-mother at all. It was Snow White’s mother. And she didn’t just want Snow White’s heart – she wanted her lungs and liver, too. When she discovers that the huntsman hasn’t killed the girl, she sets out to try to kill her in three different ways: with an overly tight corset, with a poisoned comb, and finally with a poisoned apple. It’s not true love’s kiss that revives Snow White, it’s a good shake, as the prince attempts to make off with Snow White’s glass coffin – and the queen doesn’t get pushed off a cliff, she’s forced to dance herself to death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes. Ouch.
According to Disney: After her widowed father remarries and then dies, Cinderella is left at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters. They force her to do manual labour and wear rags, but she’s so sweet, kind, and beautiful that even wild animals love her and help her out.
When the prince throws a ball, Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears and creates a dress, coach, and footmen for her, so she can go to the party. The prince falls in love with her, but the magic ends at midnight – so she has to run away, leaving behind only her glass slipper. The prince travels the country looking for the girl who fits the shoe, but her stepsisters sabotage her by smashing it. Happily, she’s still got the other one, so she gets to live happily ever after, too.
But originally: Well, originally, the Cinderella story appeared in a volume of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. But in the Grimms’ more German version, Cinderella (or “Aschenputtel”, Ash-fool) has two beautiful step-sisters – they just happen to be utterly horrible. There’s no fairy godmother, just white doves sent to help Cinderella by her dead mother, and the prince actually holds three balls – at midnight on the third night, the prince lays a tar trap for Cinderella, which is where she loses her shoe.
When her sisters get their chance to try on the missing shoe, they each cut off different parts of their feet in order to fit into the tiny slipper, but the blood dripping from their shoes gives them away. The prince eventually finds his girl, and at their wedding, the magic doves reappear to peck out the evil sisters’ eyes.
According to Disney: A king and queen throw a huge party to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Aurora. But though they invite three good fairies, who each give her blessings, they didn’t invite the evil fairy Maleficent. Angry about being snubbed, she gatecrashes the party and gives the girl a curse: before she turns 16, she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. One of the good fairies manages to modify the curse, so that Aurora won’t die – she’ll just sleep until she’s awoken by true love’s kiss. (Yup, that again.)
The fairies try to hide the girl, and she even meets and sings to the prince in the forest, but curses can’t be hidden from, so she eventually does prick her finger and fall asleep. Maleficent locks the prince in her dungeon so he can’t break the curse, but the good fairies rescue him. Maleficient turns into a dragon, because that’s awesome, but the prince pushes her off a cliff and wakes Aurora with a kiss. Cue the happily ever after bit.
But originally: This is an interesting one, because the Grimm version of the story is actually pretty close to the Disney version: there’s a magic frog at the beginning, thirteen fairies instead of three, and lots of dead suitors stuck in the forest surrounding the castle, but otherwise, the story is pretty similar.
However, the story was published by other authors before the Grimms got their hands on it, and those versions are pretty nasty. In Giambattista’s version from 1634, once the prince finds Sleeping Beauty, he rapes her, and she only wakes up when one of the children she bore while asleep sucks the splinter out of her finger by mistake. And though Perrault’s 1697 version removes the rapes, it chucks in an epilogue with an evil stepmother who tries to eat the happy couple’s children, and ends up being thrown into a pit of vipers. Says something when the Grimms’ version is nicer than the others, doesn’t it?
According to Disney: Disney’s adaptation of Rapunzel, Tangled, is very recent, and not very traditional. Rapunzel gets a lot more agency than most other Disney princesses, and her prince isn’t a prince at all. But the elements of a sanitised Rapunzel story are there: a beautiful princess is kept captive by a witch, who uses the girl’s long hair to climb in and out of a tower prison, and it’s only when she meets a man that she gets to escape.
But originally: According to the Grimms, the reason the wicked witch gets to make off with baby Rapunzel is that her dad stole herbs from the witch’s garden to meet his wife’s cravings, and when he got caught, he agreed to hand over his first-born. Rapunzel gets stuck in the tower, letting down her hair for the witch, but when a passing prince hears her singing, he decides to pay Rapunzel a visit himself. He visits her, secretly, several times, and the witch only finds out because Rapunzel gets pregnant, and innocently asks why her belly’s getting so big.
In a rage, the witch cuts off the girl’s hair, uses it to lure the prince back into the tower, then chucks him off the top, letting him fall into a thorn bush that plucks out his eyes. Eventually, though, there is a happy ending where the couple get back together, and Rapunzel’s tears heal the prince’s eyes.
Disturbed enough yet? There’s more. In some of the Grimms’ stories, there’s an unpleasant seam of anti-Semitism. For example, in one story, the hero tortures a Jewish man by making him dance on thorns until he’s torn and bleeding, as punishment for some imagined sins. When the man cries for help, the judge sides with his torturer, and the Jew is hanged as a thief. The racism, combined with German patriotism, might explain why the Nazis saw the Grimm fairy tales as such a great match for their propaganda: in films aimed at kids, Little Red Riding Hood gets rescued by a man in an SS uniform, while Puss in Boots morphs into a kind of Hitler figure at the end. Scary stuff.
That’s jumping a long way into the future, though. Back in the 1800s, after the first edition of the collection was published, the Grimms were criticised for writing stories that were unsuitable for kids. In response, they re-edited some of the stories to soften their rough edges, and later editions were split: ‘Large’ editions contained all the stories, with academic annotations by the brothers, while ‘Small’ editions contained selected re-edited stories deemed suitable for kids. Those edits created a wider audience for the Grimms’ books, and probably ensured that their stories endured.
After all, no-one wants a bedtime story that gives them nightmares.
Grimm season 3 starts on Wednesday the 5th of February at 9pm on WATCH in the UK (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124).
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